Walt Nichol, man of few understandable words, slows the snowmobile to a stop about twenty feet of my battered Toyota Corolla and I jump out. For the third time in as many days, Alden Pellett, Ryan Stefiuk and I thank Walt and step out of his cedar sleigh. We’ve all agreed before we’ve hit the beer store: the past three days of climbing in Newfoundland have been the best consecutive days in the mountains we’ve ever had.
I first thought about Newfoundland as an adventure destination four years ago. I was a senior at Colorado College, and my girlfriend at the time had spent a summer bushwhacking through Gros Morne National Park with two friends. Their slideshow presentation wasn’t exactly inspiring. Thick, horrible vegetation barely shrouded by blackening skies, atrocious wind, and all manner of foul weather dominated their auditorium talk. Next to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, Newfoundland didn’t seem all too grand.
That same year I picked up a Gripped magazine that told of the massive potential for new ice climbs in the same area. Two talented Canadians, LP Menard and Yan Mongrain, had stumbled upon a giant cliff plastered with tenuous, long lines in a wild setting. The article began a well-known controversy concerning the reporting of Newfie first ascents. The two new routes reported by the pair had been done before. The ensuing discourse on Alpinist.com included insight from Joe Terravecchia and a host of recognizable others, whose sorties in the region were mostly downplayed but had “climbed that place silly,” including the Canadians’ two “new” lines. Were Menard and Mongrain at fault for too quickly reporting their ascents? Were Terravecchia et al to blame for hiding their own in the region? I became intrigued. Rarely do passions flare for fool’s gold. There must be some good climbing in Newfoundland.
Ryan and Alden made their trip a few weeks after the Quebecois. The two stayed under the radar and did a lot of hard climbing. When I met Ryan in December of 2009, I had moved back to New England in desperate need of partners. After we climbed Called on Account of Rains, I thought our partnership was over. I could hardly expect Ryan, an AMGA guide, to keep climbing with a nascent 22-year-old? To my pleasant surprise, Ryan kept calling and we’ve enjoyed a lot of great days out in the hills. He’s proven an invaluable mentor during my four years of living and climbing ice in New England.
I met Alden a year or so earlier at my first Mount Washington Icefest. At the Moat one night we paced each other with beer and soloing stories. Alden won. Soloing Bridalveil Falls casually enough to quip one-liners on the last pitch? Who was this guy? We started roping up together as well, and organically we three with our varying ages, experience levels, and tolerance for Craggenmore single malt scotch, found ourselves planning a trip to Newfoundland.
New routes or not, I want some sense of adventure from my climbs. I like winter climbing because it feels like exploration. Uncontrollable and deliberate actions overlap, creating something barely tangible. I’ve never climbed ice by the ocean before. At Cox’s Cove, on our first day of climbing, Ryan artfully leads up the plum line: 50 meters of WI4+ jutting over a grey sea. We whoop for joy despite wooden hands and obvious fatigue: after two days of driving and a day of waiting for a weather-delayed ferry, we’re badly in need of sleep.
Me soloing up to the business in Cox's Cove. Photo Courtesy Ryan Stefiuk. Please look at Ryan's amazing blog, bigfootmountainguides, for amazing pictures and stories about northeast ice.
Early the next morning we start towards Trout Brook Pond, where thousand foot ice routes lie in wait. A vicious wind lashes our cabin in Rocky Harbour. It’s an act of will simply to get up. After an hour and a half white-knuckle driving, we strap on approach skis and start skimming across the pond into the fjord. Breaking a trekking pole, I struggle to keep up. I feel lucky enough to be here with Ryan and Alden. Whatever happens on this trip, I do not want to slow them down or force a retreat in any way. Close to the shore, the ice peters into slush, clinging to our skis. We are hugging the shoreline when I hear a crack. Seconds later, after a panicked yowl for help, I’m thigh-deep in freezing cold water. I unclip my skis from my Baturas and crawl out, miserable mostly because I’ve ruined a day of climbing and know the jokes will start running faster than lake water off of my pants.
In Rocky Harbour, we arrange a snowmobile ride for the next day and try to rest beforehand. I attack my soggy boots with a blowdryer. Mirth in his eyes, Alden produces a pair of swim trunks and puts them on the table.
“For Junior, in case he wants to go swimmin’ again,” he jokes in impeccable Scottish brogue. For the rest of the trip as we ski across frozen bodies of water, I remember the cold of Trout Brook Pond and hope lightning won’t strike twice.
At seven a.m. we meet local Walt Nichol and his running snowmobile and sleigh at the trailhead. Twenty minutes later we drive into a massive fjord. Alden had said the place would blow me away. “It’s like ten Polar Circuses and they’ve all only been climbed once or twice.” I hadn’t believed him but after a single glance upwards I’ve all but forgotten the Canadian Rockies as a climbing destination.
“They’ve all been done by Joe,” says Ryan as we gaze upwards. We simply get out, walk up and down the frozen lake, find a climb, and start hiking uphill. After a 15 minute approach, Ryan motors up a massive gulley and we find ourselves belaying Alden in blowing spindrift. Halfway up, I’m greeted by perfect sticks in great ice: the most enjoyable WI5 I’ve ever led. I think back to my fearful moments on past Alaskan, Canadian, and South American trips. Here, with solid partners, little objective hazard and a mere twenty minutes’ ride back to warm showers and beer, we’re experiencing the type of conditions one can spend a lifetime in any other range fruitlessly hunting for.
Alden leading the money pitch on our last day in the fjord. Courtesy Ryan Stefiuk.
The next day we return to feast on Fat of the Land: a striking, 1000 foot line on what’s dubbed the Cholesterol wall: an absurdist’s lake Willoughby: massive, overhanging ice features shrouded by compact black rock and vast sky. After an exciting simul-solo up Alden’s favorite: turf, he leads out on quality mixed terrain, his twenty plus years’ experience flowing with each swing into frozen vegetation. We gain the ice. Water cascades down. That familiar feeling of fear seeps into my gut along with the coffee and early morning breakfast burritos. I defer to the elders’ judgment; they are keen. “Up! We go up!” they chant in European accents. I can’t help joining them as warm sun spills over the far side of the fjord. The sound of running water jars our concentration. Ryan leads up the meat of the climb: a WI5+ stemming affair: strenuous in the best of conditions but nightmarish with the warmth. Even Alden, master of the sun-drenched Lake, becomes worried as we dive for cover, water cascading down our puffy jackets. Shit! If Alden’s scared, what does that make me? Ryan presses onward and we realize he couldn’t bail if he wanted to. Leaning back on a screw deposited in this slush would spell disaster. We run up the pitch, seconding side-by-side. Ryan keeps leading in order to stay warm. I am nervous as hell about sloppy v-threads failing but we might as well tag the top. I take over for one long pitch to the trees. Oh god, c’mon v threads! Hold! My wet, skinny legs are freezing. I can’t imagine how cold Ryan is after having led the crux, but he takes the v-threader and sturdily starts back down without complaint.
By our third day Walt’s tracks have hardened and the ride in the cedar sleigh becomes even more bumpy. We are tired. We solo up 800 feet or so of W13, through wild chimneys into a massive gulley system. Rounding a corner, calves burning, I yell. An amazing pitch splits the gulley. I am reminded of climbing Damnation Gulley to the really good pitches of Shaken, Not Stirred on the Mooses’ Tooth. I cannot believe I am on the East Coast. Alden strides up the WI5 pitch, harder and longer than it looks, as well as the next one: an M4 R affair: falling would certainly mean hitting the neve below before tumbling down a little farther. Seconding, I remove a Pellett protection trademark: a spare ice tool wedged in a snowy crack clipped to a screamer. The top of the fjord beckons. But the gulley uncoils for longer than expected and we solo another 600 feet or so of perfect, Huntington ravine style neve. I am struck by the potential here, but am reminded that it’s all been climbed before, quietly, without bolts, and without much fuss.
Back at the cabin we finish the last of the single malt and celebrate. I think about LP and Yan, stumbling upon the same fjord after a long ski to promising topo lines. While it may be easy to criticize the Quebecois’ lack of research, I find it easier to applaud their exploratory spirit and obvious talent. I envy the experience they must have had: finding a “brand new” ice venue, rival to anywhere short of Norway, deep in the barren, Newfoundland backcountry, fleeting as the feeling may have been. I also think about Joe and company’s initial approach, and the amazement they must have had first setting eyes and tools on this ethereal place. I can understand their reticence to share information. Should Newfoundland receive a guidebook? Drawn topos? Or should it gather only whispers back home? A medium between the two approaches might be reached. Audacious souls with stout minds can continue to uncover the island’s secrets with luck, a topographical map and willingness to explore. The uncertainty makes it adventure and that can be hard to come by these days on our compact little East Coast.